Will Self: the first step in dealing with your speeding problem is agreeing that you have one

It may surprise regular readers of this column, who have read me over the years animadverting on the follies of all aspects of the vehicular, to learn that I am a chronic speedhead

At the speed awareness course run by AA DriveTech somewhere in the arse-end of the Angel, I run into Stephen Bayley, the design guru. Bayley is the author of (among many other works) Sex, Drink and Fast Cars, a copy of which he rather opportunistically has in the Gladstone bag he’s lugging along at the end of his cream-linen clad arm. A quick exchange establishes that he, like me, was nabbed by the speed cameras on Tower Bridge doing 27 miles per hour. Our admission calls forth from our fellow course participants, who are sitting on plastic stacking chairs waiting to undergo the “registration process”, that they – old, young, black, white, brown, male, female, gay and straight – are all guilty of exactly the same offence.

It’s a very modern moment, this: an application of technology to the turbid urban mill race has resulted in the diversion into this quiet, carpet-tiled pool of an odd group of fish, united only by this fact – that on such and such a date, we were all travelling at the same velocity in the same place. And yet . . . and yet, the recognition of this piffling common characteristic is sufficient, or so I like to think, to unite us as a group. As Gary (not his real name) from DriveTech checks our IDs and fingers our details into his handheld device, our solidarity grows; we swell into this new identity, until – seated in trios at melamine-topped desks, confronting our instructor – we have become the “Tower Bridge 22”, a fearless gang of desperados whose only wish was that the drawbridges had actually been raised as we speeded towards them, so that our cars would have been launched howling into inner space!

Our instructor, Peter (not his real name, either – indeed, I don’t believe he has one), sets out a few house rules, including the need for us to maintain confidentiality. So I suppose I shouldn’t be writing about this course, let alone telling you that Stephen was there. Still, I like to tempt fate: I’m the Edward Snowden of the TB22, fearlessly exposing DriveTech’s sinister secrets, and when the City of London police come knocking, I’ll go on the run, holing up at South Mimms services until I’m offered asylum . . . by Burger King.

Up until now, I’ve been struggling to fit in with the rest of the TB22. I want to be a good group member. Besides, unlike Stephen – who vigorously contends that he never speeds and that the 20-miles-per-hour limit, as well as being inadequately advertised on the approach to the bridge, is imposed on baseless grounds cooked up by English Heritage regarding its not-so-superstructure – I know I need help. It may surprise regular readers of this column, who have read me over the years animadverting on the follies of all aspects of the vehicular, to learn that I am a chronic speedhead. True, I don’t own a car any more but put my hands on the hireling wheel – as they were on the night of the 17th inst – and my foot slams straight to the floor. So . . . I am reaching out – while Stephen tenses up.

Over the next three hours, with only a 15-minute break for coffee, Peter leads us through the dos and do-nots of velocity. The course is a mixture of the informational (basically, a refresher on the Highway Code) and the emotional: lots of statistics about fatalities and how an extra ten miles an hour will turn you into the Angel of Death, slaughtering all suburban firstborn. I am, as I say, willing to be healed and so I participate enthusiastically. So does Stephen. Unfortunately, we take part perhaps a little too enthusiastically: I’m not sure Peter gets that many attendees who wish to discuss in detail the traffic management theories of Hans Monderman, or the impacts of high- and low-frequency vibrations on bascule bridges, let alone the neoliberal underpinning to his argument that the government needs us to be able to drive so that we can join in that collective desideratum, “growth”.

By the end of the course, when we’re using our hand-held devices to “vote” not only on multiple-choice questions but also on how we feel Peter has done, I’m feeling considerable solidarity with my fellow speeders. But then, as we are encouraged to put what we’ve learned to the test by answering questions in response to Peter’s laser pointer hovering over an image of the approaches to the dreaded bridge, it becomes painfully clear that I am a man alone. It is Stephen who personifies the group’s Geist, for almost every member of the TB22 is still carping bitterly about how they were nicked at all. Loonies.

A vandalised Gatso speed camera. Photo: Getty Images.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle